Stamp of Disapproval for Mexico

By Jabari Asim
Tuesday, July 5, 2005; 11:21 AM

WASHINGTON -- Please Mr. Postman, look and see, oh, yeah, if there's a letter in your bag for me -- unless it's from Mexico. In that case, mark it "Return to Sender" and whisk it back across the border.

Last week the Mexican government released a series of stamps featuring a dark-skinned character whose exaggerated features recall an uglier time in world history. The character, named Memin Pinguin, looks like a bug-eyed, big-lipped half-human, half-chimp hybrid. He brings to mind those yesteryear caricatures of blacks that still command a fetching sum when offered for sale on Internet auctions.

On two of the stamps, he sports a derby, formal wear and multicolored shoes. In the others, he models a schoolboy get-up similar to that worn by Chim-Chim, another popular cartoon character who used to appear in episodes of "Speed Racer." Chim-Chim, in contrast, was all monkey. On the last of the stamps, Memin cavorts under the watchful eye of a plump black woman who appears to have escaped from a pancake box.

African-American and Latino leaders, including the heads of the National Urban League and the National Council of La Raza, have denounced the stamps as a hateful mistake. The Mexican government says they've got it all wrong.

"He is a cartoon character," said Rafael Laveaga, a spokesman for the Mexican embassy told The Washington Post. "I am certain that this commemorative postage stamp is not intended to be interpreted on a racial basis in Mexico or anywhere else."

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition has demanded an apology from Mexican President Vicente Fox. You may recall that Jackson called for an apology from Fox seven weeks ago for comments he made about blacks. Perhaps Fox had Memin in mind when he said his countrymen were willing to take jobs "even blacks don't want." The president eventually backed away from his remark after initially insisting that it was taken out of context.

It will be interesting to see how Fox responds to the White House, which has added its voice to the growing chorus of condemnation. In a laudable -- albeit rare -- burst of sensible rhetoric, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan issued a statement saying, "Racial stereotypes are offensive, and I would say racial stereotypes are offensive no matter what their origin. The Mexican government needs to take this into account. Images such as these have no place in today's world."

Mexican artist Sixto Valencia Burgos first drew Memin Pinguin in the 1940s, and his creation soon became popular throughout Latin America. In comments to Reuters, Fox spokesman Ruben Aguilar said the stamps paid tribute to cartoonists like Burgos and represented "a celebration of popular Mexican culture."

American popular culture wasn't much different in the 1940s, or even later. Dr. Seuss' "If I Ran The Zoo," first published in 1950, features a drawing of an African not far removed from Burgos' bizarre doodlings. But Seuss' drawing is not featured on stamps, and no tribute to him or his legacy would likely include that misstep.

During that same period, American cartoonists Fritz Freleng and Walter Lantz created racist images of blacks that since then have been all but removed from the marketplace. Compared to cartoons such as Lantz's "Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat," our little simian friend on the Mexican stamps is a prime candidate for an NAACP Image Award. Lantz's defense of his work sounds as befuddled as those that Mexican officials have offered. Objecting to what he saw as unfair censorship, Lantz insisted that he "never offended or degraded the colored race" in his work.

The danger of offending racial sensibilities is not lost on contemporary American animators. Disney and DreamWorks are so leery that they have set entire movies in and around Africa ("The Lion King," "Tarzan," "Madagascar") without once showing a single African. Better safe than sorry seems to be the credo -- a philosophy the Mexican government should consider adopting.

There are far worse transgressions against black people, to be sure. On the cosmic scale, unleashing Memin on the impressionable youth of today is mere cultural pornography, beneath comparison with slavery, lynching, the Tuskegee Experiment and filibustering against civil rights bills. It's probably closer to Sammy Davis kissing Nixon, Ben Vereen doing his blackface strut-and-shuffle at Ronald Reagan's 1980 inauguration, or any of roughly a million hip-hop videos.

But it's still stupid.

Should we forgive Mexico for its inexplicable, inexcusable brainlessness? Eventually. Should any American spend a single cent on Mexican vacations or any other industry that brings capital to Mexican coffers? Of course not.

At least until Mexico's government starts talking sense.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company